Views from Vibrant Vietnam

Reflections from the Habitat build and cultural activities in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

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Mekong River channel snaking through the villages and town of Cao Lanh.

Summary

During our 10-day trip to the southern Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap in Vietnam, our team built two brick homes alongside two recipient families within one close-knit community along the banks of the Mekong River. 

Our project focused on assisting low-income households affected by the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, like flooding. Built into the work week were a few cultural and site seeing activities, like basket weaving and learning about the lotus flower industry, to better understand the region, the residents, and how families make ends meet. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Today is the first day of the official trip! My parents and Weston and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam several days ago in order to make sure we were ready for the rest of the volunteers and not jet-lagged. Thankfully, we feel great! Plus, yesterday was my birthday, so it was fun to explore the city a bit before the rest of the team arrived.

This morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel before meeting our first two team members who had arrived the night before. Together, we walked about around the city and a mile or so towards the botanical garden, which was also a zoo. After exploring for a few hours in the heat, we found an air-conditioned restaurant where we had lunch and gelato, a much-needed treat! Then we began the hot walk back to the hotel. Once there, we checked to see who had arrived and several others had arrived, but we didn’t meet them until dinner that night. We hung out at the roof-top pool for a bit and enjoyed the awesome view of the city from the top. Cars and motorbikes go zipping around the circles and corners, while pedestrians take a chance by stepping off the curb and crossing the road.

Hello = xin chào (sin chow)

Goodbye = tạm biệt (tam bee it)

Thank you = cảm ơn (gahm un)

You’re welcome = không có chi (khom go chee)

That night, all of us – 18 at that point – congregated in the lobby to head to dinner. Thankfully, Mai Anh, the main Vietnam host coordinator met us with her son for dinner and showed us the way. She was who I’d communicated with prior to the trip, so it was nice to put a face to a name. She and her son were so sweet and helpful in organizing the dinner for everyone. Because she had pre-ordered the meals, we hardly had to wait. It was delicious! So far, all the food had been delicious and composed mainly of meat, rice, vegetables, tofu, and fruit. The fruit juices are the best. My favorite: watermelon juice.

Everyone has gotten along well so far and I think we’ll have a great team! We’re all turning in early tonight, but that’s for the best since tomorrow morning will be early.

Sunday, July 29

Our day began at 6 am this morning. We’re leaving for Dong Thap at 8 am, so we had to eat breakfast and check out of the hotel before then. The coffee!! I forgot to mention that the coffee is amazing! I’ve had several cups every morning. I think they have a lot of hazelnut coffee here because it smells like Nutella. It is also a little bit sweet even when you don’t add sugar to it.

You can get coffee prepared in several ways. The latter two are incredibly sweet, so you must be prepared!

  • Hot black coffee without milk or sugar
  • Hot coffee with condensed milk
  • Traditional Vietnamese coffee which is iced and has condensed milk
  • Egg coffee made with hot coffee, an egg, and condensed milk
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The delicious egg coffee…

The team met in the lobby after breakfast and packed up the bus. Hiep, Binh, and Vi, three  Habitat Vietnam staff, plus a man named Jim from another Habitat Asia office, joined us on the way to Dong Thap and would provide support and guidance during the build. It was about a 3.5-hour drive to the hotel from HCMC, so a good way to see the countryside as we go. Along the way we visited and got to know one another and watched through the windows as the cityscape turned to rural countryside and the traffic became less and less dominated by cars and more by motorcycles and scooters and people walking.

We arrived at our hotel in the town of Cao Lanh in the Dong Thap province and had lunch right away in the restaurant there – a great selection of pre-ordered Vietnamese dishes. After lunch, Binh and Hiep, gave us the official Habitat Vietnam welcome and orientation so we would understand more about the organization, what we would be doing on the build, who we’d be helping, and a bit about the population and community we’d be serving.

We learned that we have two families and two houses that we’re working on in the same general area, only a 2-minute walk from each other. One is made up of two parents and their two children and one nephew; the other is a single mother with two daughters and a son. Both houses are in the same state of progress: the foundation has been laid, but we need to pour the concrete floor and build the walls up to roof-height with bricks.

After the orientation, we had a short break to check in to our rooms and get settled. Then we headed out on the bus to visit the People’s Committee, a government building where they officially welcomed us into the country and their community. They served us delicious mango – known for being the best in the county. From there, we headed out to the village to meet the two families who we’d work, see their current houses, and get an idea for what work we’d be doing the following day.

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Dinner was thankfully at the hotel tonight because everyone was so tired and ready to crash. Once again, Hiep ordered us food ahead of time and it came out as an assortment of dishes on as many plates, all tasty! We divided up the team into two equal groups and assigned one house to each group, and called it a night.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Monday was our first build day! Breakfast started at 6 am, so we were down there by 6:30 am grabbing a cup of amazing Vietnamese coffee and other tidbits of food, from rice noodles to pho soup, fresh fruit to fried eggs, spring rolls to meat dishes, and tofu and steamed veggies! We packed up and headed out at 7:30 am to the build sites we had visited yesterday.

The houses were about a 5-minute walk from each other, down a narrow dirt road with a river channel on one side and neon green rice patties on the other. It was wonderful that they were so close because at different points during the build, each group was able to walk down and see the progress the other half of the team was making on the other house. When we arrived, each group took a photo standing in front of the house before getting a brief safety demonstration.

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Our tasks today were mainly tamping the floor to make way for pouring the concrete, sifting sand for the concrete, making the concrete, filling buckets with concrete, and pouring concrete onto the floor. It took all day to do the entire house. In the morning, the weather was pretty nice: overcast and cool with a slight breeze. It actually rained for about 30 minutes before we went to lunch. But the afternoon was a doozy! Talk about hot and humid! The sun broke through the clouds and heated up our workspace quite a lot, so we took multiple water and rest breaks until we had finished pouring the entire floor.

The group at the second house did similar tasks. They started out pouring a base concrete layer for the house which they will add a second layer to later. They poured a dry mix of sand and concrete into the house and then sprayed water over the top and packed it in. They’ll have to add a second layer of cement over the top afterward. So, once the floor was poured, they were able to stand inside the house and begin working on the walls by layering bricks around the perimeter. When my group at the first site was done for the day, we walked down the road and got to see the progress of the other group. Then we headed back to the hotel and cleaned up for dinner.

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Before eating dinner in town, we had a brief reflection meeting where we shared events and thoughts about our different builds to get everyone up to speed. We talked about how, so far, the build did or didn’t meet their expectations and their first impressions about the build, the community we’re building in, and our families. So far, everyone is enjoying the build, first-timers and repeat GVers. And there have been no problems with the team getting along! People are interacting with each other and sitting at different tables during lunches and dinners without us prompting them to do so.

We ate dinner at a restaurant in town that is used to large groups. In fact, there was actually a wedding reception going on while we ate. We could hear the karaoke music and voices echoing through the hall. They served Vietnamese food again but a ton of different dishes, so we’ve really managed to try a variety of items.

After dinner and once we’d returned to the hotel, four of us decided to walk around the lake and park right outside the hotel. Although it was a Monday night, every bench we saw along the lake was occupied with young Vietnamese couples sitting close side-by-side as if each were on an intimate date. As usual, the city was busy with motorcycles racing around the few cars, which honked their horns to let the motorcycles know they were passing. We have not seen any accident so far, but Hiep says that traffic accidents are common and a huge problem in Vietnam. People do not follow the traffic laws, people don’t wear seatbelts in cars, and the motorcycles squeeze into every small gap in between the cars so they can be in front when the traffic lights turn green. I’m glad we’re not traveling on motorbikes…

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Today followed the same basic plan as yesterday, beginning with breakfast at the hotel at 6 am and heading to the build site at 7:30. It takes about 20 minutes to drive to the build sites and they are easily accessed via paved and dirt roads. Along the way, we pass through rural neighborhoods and cross several narrow concrete bridges suspended over the Mekong River channels that snake through the whole province and beyond.

Since yesterday we poured the whole concrete floor, today we began laying bricks for the house walls. And lay bricks we did! The whole day long we mixed mortar and laid bricks. Our goal was to get to one meter high, but we quickly surpassed that. We ended up using the scaffolding to reach the higher sections of the wall. When we left, instead of being a meter, the walls were reaching 9 feet high! The front and back walls are still completely open. In the front, they are going to put a large front door that is completely open to the patio in the front. In the back, there will be another smaller door that opens up behind the house and leads to their separate bathroom.

Each day, we’ve had lunch at the People’s Committee building where the Women’s Union makes us delicious home-cooked Vietnamese food. So far, the lunches have been some of my favorite meals. For lunch, we all eat together. Each group takes the bus from their build site back into town for lunch, which is nice because the rest of the build days, besides meals, are separate. It’s been great for the team to interact during lunch with others they’re not working with directly and hear stories about how the other is progressing. After lunch, we head back to the build sites to finish up the work for the day.

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The masons have been great to work with, but we are not able to communicate with them at all, which is tough. We rely upon Hiep and Vi, the two Habitat employees, for help with translating. The family at site One has not been directly involved with the build while we’ve been there, but they have been home watching the progress with smiles on their faces. They sit in their current kitchen peeling vegetables and fruits, removing the seeds from the lotus pods (a delicacy here), and cooking a bit while watching the bricks on their home go up! What an exciting thing to witness.

During reflection tonight, my Dad, a recently retired Habitat International employee, explained about Habitat’s mission, founding history, and beginnings to give everyone an idea of how Habitat operates and why. It was a helpful lesson because a lot of people were unclear about how the families gain a house and thought they were built for the families for free rather than being built and paid back on an interest-free loan over many years (dependent on the country too).

For dinner, we ate at another restaurant in town after a short 15-minute walk from the hotel. For those of us who are vegetarian, it’s been a lot of vegetables, steamed rice, and tofu in about a million different ways! For everyone else, there’s chicken and beef and pork and fish prepared in as many ways. And of course super spicy chili sauces! The group walked back to the hotel and a few of us headed to the local night market to see what was there. It mostly sold clothes, shoes, household goods, and cell phone cases and we were certainly the only tourists around! The evening ended with Weston and me, Abby, Joan, Jim, and Vi getting ice cream at the hotel on the outside patio before going into bed. I had chocolate ice cream, but the others had durian and coconut ice cream.

Wednesday, Aug 1

Today Weston and I switched sites. During the build, we are on opposite sites since we have a large group spread across two sites; we need one team leader per build site. I wanted a chance to see how site Two’s progress was going and to interact with the second family and the other team members. Everyone else was happy sticking to their original site because they had gotten in the flow of their work and enjoyed working with the local guys and interacting with the family.

While at the first site we had poured the concrete floor and begun laying bricks for the side walls, at the second site they were farther along with the walls because they hadn’t yet poured the final concrete floor yet. There was a lot of mixing mortar and concrete done by Dad and Tyler mostly, while the rest of us continued laying bricks and tying wire onto rebar to used for internal support in the walls.

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Overall, on this build, we’ve done far less rebar work than other builds. Our work has mostly centered around the two former tasks of mortar and concrete mixing and bricklaying. Here, they use hollow red bricks with a t-bar cross in the center for support. They are lighter than traditional bricks we’re used to seeing in the States. As on other builds, all materials are sourced locally to help support the local economy and workers. Therefore, the house construction is very different in each country. This build differs from those in Romania and Guatemala were we used larger concrete blocks or spent a lot of time making forms and pouring concrete and twisting rebar.

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At site Two, the family was made up of a mother and her three children, aged 24, 15, and 13 years old. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with the youngest child, so she has been on her own trying to make a living for them all for 14 years. She was very emotional the whole time we worked on her house and quiet and shy at first. Her son helped work on the house, while the daughters watched from afar but quickly became attached to Hayley, Joan, and Abby. The girls wove us crickets and other insects out of coconut palm leaves!

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We again had lunch at the People’s Committee building and after work headed back to the hotel where we had an hour and a half before dinner. We didn’t do a reflection this night to give everyone time to explore the town a bit on their own or have some alone time. We met back up at 6:30 pm and headed to dinner at a local pizza place where we ate on the top floor of the building above the owner’s home. The team was getting tired of Vietnamese food for every meal, so it was a nice change to eat something familiar to us. From there, several of us walked to the grocery store to get some food items for ourselves and finally hung out on the hotel’s outside patio where we shared a stinky durian which wasn’t that stinky! We ended the night watching the buzzing city life under the moon and enjoying a glass of wine on the open-air patio on the top of the hotel.

Thursday, Aug 2

On previous builds, we’ve generally built in our cultural activities on the weekends before and after and to a half work day during the build week. But because of the schedule of this build and the fact that it’s shorter than some, we’re scheduling our cultural activities on our last full day as a team, Friday. This means that today was our last full day at the build site and our last day working on the build site. Tomorrow we’ll be back for the dedication ceremony with the families, but we won’t be working.

Having experienced each other’s site, Weston and I changed back to our original sites to help our teams finish up all the hard work we’d begun. Our goal for the week was to finish the concrete floor and lay the exterior house walls, which we achieved at both sites! All exterior walls (except for the back wall which is only partially complete), were laid as high as the roof. The roof will be put on the house after we leave and after they have finalized the exterior of the house.

As days before, today was incredibly hot and humid. It was a tough last day, but our encouragement came from the fact that we were close to finishing our tasks. We mixed a ton of mortar and concrete, laid a ton of bricks, and patched the outside of the walls with concrete plaster to fill in the holes and protect the inside of the house from water. I was a master bricklayer by the end with an apprenticeship in mixing mortar. It was a grueling task given the oppressive heat but nevertheless was nice to swap around tasks to give everyone some variety.

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Each day before lunch we had multiple water and snack breaks with delicious fresh fruit like rambutan, langon, langsat, watermelon, green oranges, dragonfruit, bananas, and guava. The fruit here is some of the best I’ve ever had and certainly, the best compared to what you get in the US! Many of the fruits are literally still attached branches as if someone just picked them off the tree moments before. And they’re jam-packed with juices and sweetness!

We had our last reflection meeting today where we asked everyone to share something meaningful that they’ve taken away from the build. Not everyone shared, but we got some great answers. Some were reminded of the things in life that really matter. Others were inspired to join another GV trip in the future and volunteer with their local Habitat affiliate when they returned home. Others enjoyed the relationships forged with the families despite not being able to communicate well verbally.

Our last dinner was almost street food! Up to now, we’ve eaten in pretty standard-looking restaurants. Not tonight. We went to a place that specialized in Vietnamese pancakes (more like crepes), filled with various meats and vegetables and which we rolled inside lettuce leaves, topped with fresh greens, and dipped into fish or soy sauce. They were really tasty and another great change to the standard Vietnamese food we’d been having for all other meals. At the end of dinner, we got a surprise.

All of a sudden we heard a boombox turn on with dub-step music blasting from the speakers. A young boy, about ten, who was carrying the speaker in his arms walked onto the restaurant patio and sat the speaker down on a table. An older man with long black hair that fell into his eyes followed him in carrying a suitcase filled with gadgets. We soon learned he was a magician! He blew up a long slender purple balloon (the kind you use to make balloon animals) and started to slide the balloon into his mouth and down his throat. When he had eaten the entire ballon, he carried on with another magic trip as if nothing had happened.

From the hands of the young boy, he took a thin green snake and began threading the snake up his left nostril. Our group was shrieking with shock and disgust when the snake finally wiggled his head and eventually his whole body through the man’s nose and out the man’s mouth, completely through his nasal passage! A few other tricks included turning a white napkin into a white dove and pulling a white dove out from a flat box. He passed out little dessert snacks at the end and we purchased a few since we had enjoyed (and been shocked by) the show. This made for a very memorable evening and our last team dinner all together.

Friday, Aug 3

This is our last day together as a team before the volunteers head back to Ho Chi Minh City. Weston and I and my parents are sticking around the Mekong Delta for a few extra days to see a floating market and visit a few other small towns in the region. We had breakfast at the same time today and boarded the buses to head to the sites. However, today we did not work on the build but had our dedication ceremonies with the families. The dedication ceremonies were held separately since our two teams had worked exclusively on each one and therefore had gotten to know the families well.

First, we took several photos of the family standing in their new house and a groups shot with all of us as volunteers with the family and masons. We had taken a photo at the beginning of the build on our first day when the floor was only loose rocks and the walls didn’t exist. Hiep had gotten the photos printed and framed in a large white frame, which I presented to the family during the ceremony.

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I began by explaining what an honor it was to be in Vietnam to help them build their home and thanked them for opening their home and hearts to us to allow us to work on their house with them. We enjoyed getting to know them and wished them all the best in the future as they move into the finished house in a few months. Each team member said a few words to the family as well, expressing their gratitude and well-wishes for their future. I presented them with their framed photo and took a picture of them holding it in their house.

The family members then spoke to us and thanked us for coming so far to help them with their home. They said that they would never have had a house if it wasn’t for us and they were so excited to see the progress we’d made in only a week. They would get to move into their house much more quickly thanks to our help. They told us they wished us safe travels back home and health and prosperity for our lives and families. We were told they planned to hang the printed photo in their home to remember our team and all we’d done for them.

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We had fruits and tea to share and had some time to ask the family questions about their lives and hopes for the future. They also asked us a few questions but were much more reticent than we. Unfortunately, we hadn’t been able to connect with our family at site One as much as those at site Two. Mostly because our family did not have small children running around which often helps to facilitate interactions between the family and the volunteers.

After our ceremony was finished, we walked down the road to the second house where team two was having their dedication ceremony with the second family. They had connected with the family much more because each of the three children (24, 15, and 13) had been around helping with the build or playing on the outside. Plus, Madam Phong had worked literally alongside the volunteers every day they were there and assisted with multiple tasks on the work site, including overseeing the entire operation with a shrewd eye for detail and an ability to give constructive feedback 😉 Afterall, it is her house! There were more tearful goodbyes as we hugged the mother and her two daughters, specifically.

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We walked back to the buses solemnly and headed to lunch early for our last meal at the People’s Committee prepared by the Women’s Union. Again, a round of formal thank-you speeches ensued given by the women who had served us lunch, the Women’s Union leader who we’d seen multiple times during the build, and myself who thanked them for their hospitality and for cooking us amazing Vietnamese food for the week. Eventually, we boarded the buses again and headed to the hotel where we had about an hour before departing for the cultural activities.

Our first cultural activity was learning how to weave baskets made from the stems of water hyacinth flowers. We went to an outdoor weaving coop where several women taught us how to weave the stems in and out and over and under each other and the wireframe of the basket. They also had several things to buy like woven hats, purses, and mats. I wove the bottom of a wicker basket with the help of a lady, but not everyone decided to weave a basket; some simply watched.

From there, we went back to the People’s Committee building where we got to see the lotus pods up close and learn how to pop out the seeds, cut off the outside husk, scrape off a thin papery covering, and poke out the bitter seed sprout. The cultural activities allowed us to gain insight into the daily tasks that many of the women and families do to make a living and provide for their families.

Weston and I and my parents said goodbye to the rest of the team when they boarded the big bus to head back to HCMC. They had their final team dinner at the restaurant at the hotel. Most volunteers leave tomorrow, Saturday morning, to head back to the States or on to other countries.

As for us, we’re headed south another two hours to Can Tho where we’ll visit two floating markets, a noodle factory, and see other small towns and cities in the Mekong Delta. Then we fly to Hanoi to see the bustling streets, cruise through Halong Bay on a junk boat, hike through the rice fields and mountains surrounding Sapa in the northern highlands, and eventually splash in the warm waters off the beaches of Phu Quoc before heading home. A wonderful Global Village build in a wonderfully beautiful country with wonderfully friendly people!

Safe travels and see you on a future build!

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The city of Cao Lanh, where our build took place.

See the full Vietnam photo album

Sound like fun? See the upcoming trips I’m leading!